Storm Clouds Clear for Marine Veteran

By Art Garcia,

The story caught the country by storm, and with good reason. The NCAA had come down on Middle Tennessee State freshman Steven Rhodes with a decision that left many scratching their heads.

"Everybody is well‑aware of the ordeal we went through to try to get him eligible to play this year," Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill said recently.

Rhodes joined the MT football program before the 2013 season after five years of service in the U.S. Marines. Following his enrollment, the NCAA originally ruled he only had two years of eligibility and would have to sit out the 2013 season since he played recreational football on base for a two-year period.

What seemed to be nothing more than an intramural league with his fellow Marines was going to cost Rhodes half of his potential collegiate career. The story went national on Aug. 18 and by 4 p.m. the next day, the NCAA reversed ground. The governing body of collegiate sports issued a statement that Rhodes could play immediately and had four years of eligibility.

"The support I got from the entire nation is amazing," Rhodes said after the NCAA decision. "I really appreciate everyone and their support."

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, well aware of the sacrifices made by the military, followed the Rhodes' saga.

"The NCAA made the right choice," Niumatalolo said. "Holy smokes, what are they doing?  Sometimes there's so many things and rules. I'm glad that common sense prevailed."

Rhodes' impact to the Middle Tennessee State program goes beyond the field. The 25-year-old freshman defensive end played in all 12 games, made 10 total tackles, including a half-sack on the season.

Rhodes is now preparing for his first postseason game in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30 at Amon G. Carter Stadium. The venue couldn't be more appropriate.

"Each game he's worked his way in a little bit more playing time," Stockstill said. "He started out probably the first half of the year contributing on special teams. Now he's started to get several snaps a game on defense.

"He's fit in. He's done an excellent job. He's a great teammate. He practices hard. He competes hard. I know he'll be excited to play in this game. This will have a little bit of extra special meaning for him, I'm sure."

Rhodes' stature within the football team only figures to grow with time. His teammates see a married man and father of two who has served his country and now lines up next to them three hours a day at practice.

"Our players do respect him," Stockstill said. "They understand his story. They understand his sacrifices. He's a great teammate, like I said. I think you'll see it build, the camaraderie, the respect level go up more and more as they get to know him better."

NOTE - The Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the Football Writers Association of American will be “formally” presented to Brandon McCoy from the University of North Texas.  Rhodes was one of seven players nominated for the 2013 Armed Forces Merit Award that was initially presented to Nate Boyer from the University of Texas in 2012.  The December 27 media conference will be at 9:30 a.m. (CT) at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel (1300 Houston St, Fort Worth, TX 76102, 817/535-6664).